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Learning to unplug from the ‘Christmas machine’: Susannah Gal

Posted 12/19/18

How are you doing right now? Stressed? I bet! There’s only six days until Christmas.

Imagine how I feel. As a faculty member at a university, you are rarely done with classes and grading …

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Learning to unplug from the ‘Christmas machine’: Susannah Gal


How are you doing right now? Stressed? I bet! There’s only six days until Christmas.

Imagine how I feel. As a faculty member at a university, you are rarely done with classes and grading before Dec. 15 (or sometimes later). That leaves precious little time after that to get ready for what should be a relaxing holiday time with family and friends.

If that sounds like you, I recommend you look into the book “Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season” by Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli. The book was originally published in 1991, although I learned about it when my church discussed it in a series 10 years ago (or maybe more).

At that point, our daughters were in elementary and middle schools, prime “gift wanting” ages. I was also teaching more than I am now and had trouble focusing on the holiday much before the middle or end of the month of December. With holiday parties and kids’ concerts and events, and the church where the girls were preparing music as well, it was a very busy time.

There’s a reason the title of the book resonated with me — machines are considered inanimate objects that run by themselves and lack empathy for people. That’s what a commercial Christmas can be like. It starts the day after Thanksgiving (maybe even before) with Black Friday events at stores touting all kinds of “unbelievable sales.”

These events take people from their families on Thanksgiving and sometimes stampedes of people trying to get to these “mega-sales” have really hurt people. Like a 34-year-old Walmart employee on Long Island in 2008 who was trampled by some 200 people trying to get into the store on Black Friday. So awful! This part of the “Christmas machine” just ran over someone like an out-of-control car or train.

Machines also don’t have feelings. For some people, these holidays are really hard as they might remind them of family they’ve lost or are away from at this time of year. We need to respect that is the case for some and allow them to grieve that change in their lives.

I heard an interview recently of family therapist Pauline Boss on Krista Tippett’s radio program “On Being.” Boss says that the idea of closure related to family loss is a myth we need to put aside. While someone may have died, we aren’t necessarily ready to give them up for months or years afterward, and that sentiment is OK. That idea is super important to keep in mind during this time, one that is often highly charged with family memories and significance.

I lost my mother this summer. She led a great life for almost all of her 88 years. The last two or so, she had become pretty confused and hadn’t really been able to have a conversation with me in a long time. Thus, while her death makes the loss more final, I had been grieving for her for much longer as mentally she’d drifted away some time ago. I do still fondly remember the dancing classes I took with her when I was little and the more recent contra dancing lessons she gave us in different places.

Over Thanksgiving, I was able to get together with my two brothers and one of my sisters. We spent several hours sharing stories of our parents, fond memories we had of them as we grew up. I heard some stories I hadn’t known before so that was fun. I think it was also really nice for our daughters to hear more about their grandparents.

We are fortunate to have some videos of my parents telling stories in their schools. This year, someone helped us convert those VHS tapes to digital format so we were able to share them with my brothers and sisters. That was a gift I could share with my family this year.

So how can we reduce the stress of preparing for and celebrating Christmas? The “Unplug the Christmas Machine” book provides what I remember as some very practical advice — focus on what’s important for you around the holiday.

For me, having time to do things with my friends and family in a relaxed and fun way is what I really enjoy at this season. Our plans this year are to meet up with our daughters this week and do a quilling class together as a gift to my husband (more on this cool paper craft another time). Then, we’ll come back here as a family and hang out around the house. We hopefully will cook fun meals such as fondue, and decorate the tree. I’ve been conscious about creating that plan as it’s more important to me than lots of gifts and parties.

At this time of the year, I try to remember that it’s not the material things that are only worth giving to friends and family. It’s your time and friendship. Maybe plan to have tea with someone after the holiday, like we did with our friend Erika a week ago. Or plan to hang out around the table and tell stories of fun memories or organize a walk in a park or your neighborhood to enjoy the holiday decorations everyone else has put up for your entertainment. Time is the one gift that can’t be replaced.

So, if you need a gift idea for next year, I suggest you look for this book online or in a library. Read it yourself early in November and then give it to a family member. You won’t regret “taking back Christmas” from the holiday machine that can run your life. I hope you have wonderful end of the year and I look forward to sharing more things in the New Year.

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.